Sonics Departure Tests Seattle

The SuperSonics are headed for Oklahoma City for the 2008-2009 season, leaving the future of basketball in Seattle and even the naming rights for the team’s home KeyArena on shaky ground.

After spending months in a one-on-one legal battle, the city of Seattle and the basketball franchise recently came to an agreement outside of court just hours before a federal judge was to rule on the case.

The settlement will see owner Clay Bennett pony up $45 million to buy out the remainder of the Sonics’ lease at the KeyArena and move the team. He could be required to pay an additional $30 million in five years if state legislators put aside at least $75 million to upgrade the venue and the city fails to secure an NBA franchise.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement that if public funding to revamp the venue is authorized before the end of 2009, the league could get on board with the idea of bringing basketball back to Seattle.

"We understand that city, county and state officials are currently discussing a plan to substantially re-build KeyArena for the sum of $300 million," Stern said. "If this funding were authorized, we believe KeyArena could properly be renovated into a facility that meets NBA standards relating to revenue generation, fan amenities, team facilities and the like."

Plans for the proposed $300 million renovation include expanding the venue with new restaurants, office space and private club areas around the perimeter, as well as improving the loading zones and parking, according to the Seattle Times.

But even if the renovations are approved, the Sonics’ departure could signal some big changes for the venue in the near future.

First off, the city-operated arena could face the possibility of its naming sponsor following the team’s lead and pulling out of its deal with the venue.

"In the coming weeks, we will be analyzing the settlement to determine how it will affect our agreements with the city and the Sonics," KeyBank president Rick Wirthlin told the Times.

Deborah Daoust, spokeswoman for the Seattle Center, which houses KeyArena, told Pollstar the facility hasn’t had any discussions regarding the agreement with KeyBank thus far. However, she conceded that the deal stipulates that a professional NBA team play in the arena.

One boon for the venue will be the settlement agreement between the Sonics and the city, which will be used to pay off remaining debt on the building, leaving KeyArena in a position to remain profitable with fewer dates.

Bookings had numbered as many as 160 per year, but are expected to drop between 80 and 100 after losing the Sonics and the minor-league hockey Thunderbirds, which will move to the nearby Kent Events Center.

Still, Daoust said the arena’s newly opened schedule clears up previous scheduling conflicts with game dates and long-lead holds, leaving KeyArena in a good position.

"They see this as a really great opportunity," she said. "This is a premier concert and events venue in the region and they get lots of calls for bookings that they can’t accommodate or haven’t been able to accommodate because of all the holds that were on for the SuperSonics. There is going to be more availability and it’ll be much easier to find a date to book all kinds of events."